• Travis Hawkins

Add or Subtract? How the 49ers Should Address the Wide Receiver Position

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

The 49ers opened the 2020 league year by dealing from a position of strength, trading DeForest Buckner to the Colts. The defensive line was the strength of the team last year and the 49ers leveraged that strength in order to get draft capital to improve other areas of the team, such as wide receiver.

When it comes to the various position groups, the wide receivers are among the most consistently and hotly debated; everyone has a take. The Niners currently have nine receivers under contract and are likely to keep six on the final roster - so the question is, should they add to that number? Subtract?

Since taking the job as San Francisco’s head coach, Kyle Shanahan has hand selected the receivers in the draft and free agency looking for the right mix of guys who can execute his offense. Shanahan places a premium on a player’s ability to get separation and his ability to run routes over size and the ability to make contested catches. Shanahan also seems to favor having a varied corps of receivers that he can deploy in various combinations to put maximum stress on the defense.

Currently on the roster are:

  • Kendrick Bourne

  • Marquise Goodwin

  • Jalen Hurd

  • Richie James

  • Dante Pettis

  • Shawn Poindexter

  • Deebo Samuel

  • Trent Taylor

  • Chris Thompson

Last season’s receiving corps finished below league average in yards and receptions despite getting a big boost from a mid-season trade for Emmanuel Sanders and from rookie Deebo Samuel. The 152 receptions and 2,122 yards were twenty-one percent and sixteen percent below the NFL average respectively.

Getting little to no production from players that were being counted on to fill specific roles did not help the overall production of the unit. In 2017, Marquise Goodwin was brought in to be the speed guy that Shanahan covets and in his first season, he appeared to be a steal. The last two seasons for Goodwin have been marred by personal tragedies that have affected his play on the field and 2019 ended with a trip to injured reserve.

Injuries also played a part in the production of the wide receiver unit. Rookie Jalen Hurd captured the imagination of Niner fans with his running back skills in a tight end’s body. Hurd’s professional debut only served to heighten expectations when he ran through a defender for one touchdown and caught a fade pass in the end zone for another. Unfortunately, Hurd’s debut would also be his season finale; Hurd suffered a back injury and his status going forward is unknown.

By all accounts, the best receiver during training camp last year was Trent Taylor, but the training camp video is all Niner fans would see of Taylor. Taylor broke his foot prior to the preseason opener but he missed the entire season due to the five surgeries required to fix the break and a resulting infection.

Perhaps the most disappointing was Dante Pettis. Pettis was being touted as a breakout candidate in his second year, but instead found himself so far in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse that he was a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl. It wasn’t a numbers game that lead to Pettis being a scratch either, Shanahan thought it was better to dress just four receivers than to dress Pettis.

Two wide receivers from last year’s NFC Championship squad are unrestricted free agents, Emmanuel Sanders and Jordan Mathews, and are unlikely to be back. Matthews barely got his uniform dirty last season and his loss won’t be felt, but the same cannot be said for Sanders. Sanders provided stability to a very young group of receivers and showed them how a true professional conducts himself. Unfortunately, Sanders will likely price himself out of the 49ers’ future plans.

With the trade of DeForest Buckner, the 49ers acquired the thirteenth pick in the NFL draft and put themselves in prime position to add a top tier wide receiver. The 2020 NFL draft is considered by many to be the best wide receiver class in a generation and the temptation may prove too much for Kyle Shanahan to resist.

With the 49ers certain to add through the draft which players are likely to go? Marquise Goodwin will most likely be cut or traded in order to free up salary cap space and Mathews and Sanders will likely not be retained (as previously discussed). The remaining wideouts will battle it out in camp to earn a spot on the roster.

Some familiar names will be on the roster bubble when it comes time for cuts. Richie James will definitely be on the bubble since he has been unable break through since being drafted in 2018. Dante Pettis will also need to fight for his job in camp this year and could find himself being traded prior to final cuts. Trent Taylor is also on the bubble this year. Despite being Jimmy Garoppolo’s go-to guy in 2017, Taylor has been unable to stay healthy and another injury could spell the end for him.

Given the uncertainty that surrounds players like Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd, the 49ers may choose to take advantage of the depth in the class and double up on wide receiver. During Shanahan’s tenure he has not been shy about spending draft capital on the wide receiver position. Including the trade for Emmanuel Sanders, the 49ers have spent seven draft picks on wide receiver since 2017 so the smart money will be on them to add more in this draft.

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